Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Sundance ’21: Amy Tan—Unintended Memoir

Amy Tan is a literary bestseller on the magnitude of the late, great Tom Wolfe. She has only published six novels and two full-length nonfiction books since 1989, but each one has been an event. Her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club became a sensation and so did Wayne Wang’s film adaptation. She is a totally appropriate choice for the American Masters treatment and director James Redford obviously had the connections to get Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir into this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered yesterday.

Tan’s early novels incorporated considerable autobiographical elements, but they were still fiction. The “Joy Luck Club” was indeed based on a real-life investment and social cooperative formed by her parents and their friends (it seems like there are a lot of lessons to draw from that alone). Unfortunately, her early teen years were marred by the tragic deaths of her beloved father and older brother, as well as the erratic behavior of her unstable mother.

Redford does a nice job tracing how her real-life family history is reflected in her work. Clearly, Tan is reserved by nature, but he gets her to open up on several occasions. Viewers will find a good deal of emotional resolution or payoff in the film, but Tan would surely chafe at the triteness of calling it a “recovery” story.

Indeed, Tan is refreshingly candid. When asked about the criticism of supposed Asian stereotypes in her work, she cuts to the heart of the matter, explaining the outrage-chorus will never be satisfied with anything that isn’t outright propaganda. Exactly so.

It is also interesting to revisit widespread popular acceptance for the
Joy Luck Club book and movie. Appropriately, cast-members like Tamlyn Tomita and Rosalind Chao reflect on the film’s legacy and author Kevin Kwan (who experienced something similar with the film version of Crazy Rich Asians) explains how it inspired him. Nevertheless, Disney declined to greenlight Kitchen God’s Wife, because they assumed Asian American films were a trend that would shortly crest. How does that decision look in retrospect?

Redford’s doc
is probably the best American Masters-affiliated film since Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. It is a smart profile of a self-aware subject. He also incorporates some brief animated vignettes that add some visual flair. Highly recommended, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir screens again this morning (2/3) at this year’s mostly online Sundance and it is expected to air sometime in May on PBS.